At a time when young people in the Middle East are using Twitter and Facebook to coordinate protests against authoritarian regimes, groups of out-of-control teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic are using the same social networking tools to commit crimes and violent acts.
Mobs of American teens have been using Twitter and Facebook to arrange “flash” looting of stores and violent beatings of innocent bystanders. And a few weeks ago in London, British youths used their smart phones to outmaneuver the police as they rampaged, looted and destroyed property.
Following several days of rioting, British Prime Minister David Cameron called for controls over social networking. He told Parliament that “when people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them,” according to a CNN report.
Accordingly, British officials met with representatives of Twitter, Facebook and Research In Motion (maker of BlackBerry) on Aug. 25 to discuss ways to restrict the use of social media in times of civil unrest. In doing so, the government walked a tightrope, as domestic opponents raised the issue of censorship and authoritarian regimes, such as Iran, charged Cameron with hypocrisy.
The Guardian, a London newspaper, reported that the social network companies “were poised to face down the government on its plan” ahead of the closed-door meeting with Home Secretary Theresa May and other officials.
But May assured the networking representatives at the meeting that the government had no plans to restrict their service, the Guardian reported.
After the meeting, May’s office issued this statement: “The discussions looked at how law enforcement and the networks can build on the existing relationships and cooperation to prevent the networks being used for criminal behavior. The government did not seek any additional powers to close down social media networks.”
Apprehensive British civil liberties groups sent an open letter to May stating that limiting or monitoring social network communications require caution and public debate.
“We are very concerned that new measures, made in good faith but in a heated political environment, will overextend powers in ways that would be susceptible to abuse, restrict legitimate, free communication and expression and undermine people’s privacy,” the letter continued.
Still, many in Britain say that something must be done. In an interview with the New York Times, a senior police officer who attending the meeting said he understood the uneasiness many feel about restricting social network use. “But if they’re allowing criminal activity — and this was high-end criminality, people lost their lives in these riots — I struggle to see how that can just go on,” Gordon Scobbie told the New York Times.
“We have a duty to protect people,” he added, “and that’s always balanced with human rights, online or offline. It’s no different now.”
One of the available options authorities are considering is social media analysis software, capable of evaluating huge quantities of data to signal possible disorder. Similar technology is already in use that analyzes telephone conversations, the New York Times reported.
Scobbie said he saw no good reason why authorities should not be allowed to use the technology in the online medium.
Meanwhile, authorities have already imprisoned two men who used their Facebook page to urge others to riot. CNN, quoting a Cheshire Police spokeswoman, reported that neither of their Facebook posts resulted in any rioting. Nevertheless, authorities arrested the men to send a strong message to others.